America’s Aging Water Infrastructure Needs Upgrading

(3BL/JustMeans) Water infrastructure in the US is aging. Much of it was built over 100 years ago. The pipes have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, and many were laid in the early to mid-20th century. There are one million miles of pipes across the nation that deliver drinking water to Americans. About 240,000 water main breaks occur every year, which wastes over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water in the US.

Utilities only average a pipe replacement rate of 0.5 percent a year, according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) on the infrastructure in the US. At that rate, it will take about 200 years to replace the entire system, almost double the lifespan of the pipes.

Americans use 42 billion gallons of water daily. About 80 percent of that drinking water comes from surface water such as rivers and lakes, and the rest comes from groundwater aquifers. That drinking water comes to most Americans through pipes.

The aging infrastructure is causing a lot of water to be lost. Those aging pipes leak and waste 14 to 18 percent of the water treated daily, enough to supply 15 million households. Some parts of the US are prone to drought, so every drop of water is precious. (California just came out of five years of drought when reservoirs dropped to historic lows.)

It is clear that the water infrastructure in the US needs upgrading. Some estimates put the amount needed to fix it at $1 trillion. Where will that money come from? The ASCE report suggests several ways including reinvigorating the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) program under the Safe Drinking Water Act by permanently reauthorizing it and tripling the amount of appropriations annually. Another suggestion is to fully fund the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at its authorized level.

There are things utilities can do to begin to upgrade. The use of smart metering is good place to start. Stopping leaks means utilities need to know where they occur. An in-pipe hydropower company in New York City called Rentricity Inc. has suggested in a whitepaper that real-time data is needed on customers, and that the data needs to be analyzed through the use of advanced meters. Electricity utilities began using smart meters about a decade ago to gather and analyze data. There are some water utilities that use advanced metering, but most do not. As the whitepaper points out, the use of smart meters would not only provide data on the water use of customers, but would help detect leaks at the customer level.

Riverside County’s Eastern Municipal Water District understands the importance of smart meters. The district uses the Sensus FlexNet communication network which enables them to alert customers about potential leaks. The district serves seven cities in Riverside County and is the sixth-largest water agency in California.

Through more federal funds and investments by utilities, America’s aging water infrastructure can be upgraded.

Photo: Xylem